Cudmore: Fulton County’s historic courthouse

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Located at 223 West Main St. in Johnstown, the Fulton County Courthouse was built in 1772 when New York state was still a British colony.

The building is the oldest existing courthouse in the state and one of the oldest buildings in the nation still in use as a courthouse.

Robert P. Best worked in the historic structure as a state Supreme Court Justice for 15 years, Fulton County Judge for 10 years and district attorney. 

Best was previously mayor of Gloversville and before that a law clerk to his uncle Willard Best, who was also a Fulton County judge.

Robert Best, a Pennsylvania native and U.S. Navy veteran, retired in 2006 and lives in Florida. He has been writing a booklet on the history of the Johnstown courthouse. It’s hoped that the booklet will be published in February.

Best said that Sir William Johnson, who had founded Johnstown, suggested to colonial Gov. William Tryon that a county be created west of Albany “for doing legal business.” The governor liked the idea and the new jurisdiction was named Tryon County.

The first judges were relatives or friends of Johnson. Johnson contributed 500 pounds toward the cost of building the courthouse in the summer of 1772. Best said Johnson “also provided 25 gallons of rum to refresh the brick masons, the mill wrights and the other sundry help who built the courthouse during the hot months.”

It was the only courthouse west of Albany when it was first built.  Two years after the courthouse was constructed Johnson died and soon the Revolutionary War began.

After the war the name of the county was changed from Tryon to Montgomery to honor patriot Gen. Richard Montgomery who died while leading an attack on Quebec City in the Revolutionary War.

The building became the Montgomery County Courthouse. Development along the Mohawk River, including the Erie Canal and railroad, became the “big thing” economically, according to Best. The Montgomery County seat moved to Fonda, located on the river, in 1836.

The courthouse, jail and clerk’s office in Johnstown were sold at public auction for $2,040 the next year.

The people in and around Johnstown were dissatisfied that the county seat had moved and convinced the state Legislature to create a new county from part of northern Montgomery County, naming the new county after Robert Fulton, who had improved on the invention of the steam engine.

The Johnstown courthouse, jail and clerk’s office were repurchased. Best said that lawyer and later judge Daniel Cady is called the Father of Fulton County for presiding over this transaction. Cady’s daughter was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneer suffragist.

Best said, “In 1980 something, an architectural firm went through (the courthouse), gave it good marks as continuing as a courthouse. It needed air conditioning and a few other things but otherwise it passed muster. So holding court in it was just a habit with me. It was there before I was elected and I hoped that it would stay after I was elected. It was like a movie scene from an old movie of what a courthouse looks like and it still does. A landmark in the city of Johnstown and I’m glad that it still is.”

Best added, “There’s not many things left around nowadays that reflect the past and I hope that it doesn’t become one of those monuments that somebody wants to tear down or burn like is happening in other places.”

Best’s daughter, art teacher Meredith Best, is designing artwork for the booklet, including pictures of the courthouse, Sir William Johnson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others.

 

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